One of the greatest challenges in achieving relationships and flow of data such as we have characterized as ‘Flow States,’ is the uncertainty of where and how such data may be abused, and how existing power dynamics might have to be disrupted or overcome in order to achieve such states of flow.
In public dialogues held at the Vihara Innovation Campus with representatives of different political parties, we have seen time and again a preference for retaining government operations data as confidential in order to limit media exposure and avoid criticism of government performance. But it is not only governments who need to be worried. Now that large geolocative citizen data sets are available to private partners of the government they are easily and routinely leaked, resulting in minor irritations of marketing calls or the major horrors of specific communities being targeted during riots or public disturbances. How in other words do we reconcile the public’s need for better managed actionable data, with the private individual’s need for privacy?
Sunil Abraham, on of the cofounders of the Design Public process and the Executive Director of the Center for the Internet and Society in Bangalore, has offered a kind of sliding scale gradient through which data openness should be evaluated. The more it pertains to you as an individual, the more restricted it should be. The more it pertains to government functioning, the more open it should be. In actual practice, of course, things seem to operate in reverse, with most government information unavailable except through specific request.
In the highly charged, adverserial, and mutually mistristful space of the public sphere, one may hope to make progress in improving the State’s use of data for improved public services only incrementally, through dialogue, consultation, prototyping and demonstration of particular applications of data sets to particular uses that actually work, while not at the same time creating new undesirable data externalities.
It is a good thing that we have in India a team working within the National Informatics Cell (NIC) a team dedicated to asking and answering questions of how to manage the extraordinary amount of data collected by government agencies. What is simultaneously required, however, is a process whereby new civic and public uses of this data may be imagined, elaborated and developed, and requests made for data to then be opened to the public. This is in some ways similar to the approach we have taken at the fifth edition of Design Public and at the ensuing Governance Startup Weekend, where we have brought together a community interested in working together on public services using data, whether open or self-generated.
In future, this form of collaborative interaction may be further routinized, to ensure that new initiatives are continuously taking shape and that their outcomes have the opportunity to flourish as civic innovation startups.